The Asahi Shimbun reports that McDougall was 19 when he took part in the Battle of Okinawa and found a version of Japan's national flag in a cave on the island. The Army engineer brought the item home to Centralia, Washington, where it stayed hidden in a candy box until this past May.
Sixty-eight years after the end of the battle, however, the flag has finally returned to its rightful owner.
"I did not own the flag. I never did own it," McDougall told ABC News. "Even when I got it, it belonged to somebody else."
The flag depicts the red sun symbol of Japan, surrounded by inscriptions in Japanese and spots of blood. The messages turned out to be the key to locating the family of the the flag's original owner.
According to The Olympian, McDougall's granddaughter Jennifer McDougall asked her former Japanese teacher at South Puget Sound Community College, Aki Suzuki, for help in deciphering the origins of the flag.
“When I saw the flag, I spotted my hometown name (the Senju neighborhood of Tokyo), the soldier’s name (Touji Hoshi) and a police station name, (Senju Police Station),” Suzuki said, The Olympian notes. “That’s when I got my first goose bump.”
Suzuki contacted the police station in her hometown, and a diligent officer was able to track down Tadataka Hoshi, Toju Hoshi's son and last remaining relative.
According to ABC News, Tadataka was only 3 years old when his father died. Toju Hoshi's remains were never returned, leaving five grainy photos as the only physical link Tadataka had to his father's memory.
Now he has another. Aki Sukuzi personally brought the flag to Tokyo this month to deliver it to the family. It came with a note from McDougall reading, in part, "Your possession – never been mine."
Along with 12,500 U.S. soldiers, 94,000 Japanese troops were killed on Okinawa, the Asahi Shimbun notes. Giving flags adorned with good luck messages to soldiers heading for battle is a common practice in Japan.